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Off Broadway

He Says: CSC’s As You Like It: Swinging and Jazzy, But Falling Flat in the Woods

He Says: CSC’s As You Like It: Swinging and Jazzy, But Falling Flat in the Woods
André De Shields, Hannah Cabell

André De Shields, Hannah Cabell Photo By Richard Termine

Classic Stage Company has brought us a jazzy little pastoral comedy, edited down to a reasonable 100 minutes to help celebrate their 50th anniversary.  First performed in 1603 at Wilton House, Shakespeare’s As You Like It is considered by many a work of  ‘great merit’ and popular with theater company’s worldwide for it’s sweetness and light romantic touches.  This slimmed down version, as directed and designed by John Doyle (CSC’s Pacific Overtures), with original music by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippen), is airy and sweet, filled with charming 1940’s style swing music (music supervisor: Mary-Mitchell Campbell), and adorable engaging performances. The music is charming and engaging, although sometimes distracting from the tale. But the air is filled with lightness and beautiful globes of color with a sweet glow, brought to us by the creative lighting designer, Mike Baldassari (Broadway’s Cabaret, 1998/2014). This and the charming original music helps create an atmosphere that just seems perfectly suited for this charming romance. So what went wrong?

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hannah Cabell

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hannah Cabell Photo by Richard Termine

As You Like It starts out as if a band of jolly traveling actors have come together to give us a show.  They crowd together around a book-reading Ellen Burstyn (Tony and Oscar winner for the stage and film version of Same Time, Next Year), one of the biggest draws in the cast. And then they begin to tell us the tale of the fair and pretty heroine, Rosalind, played by an energetic and charming Hannah Cabell (Broadway’s The Father) who must flee persecution from her harsh and angry uncle, Frederick, played by the stern and powerful Bob Stillman (Broadway’s Grey Gardens).  Frederick has usurped the duchy and exiled his older brother, Duke Senior, who also, later on, is played expertly by Stillman with a different jacket.  There are a lot of changing of jackets going on in this skippy story. Escaping into the Forest of Arden, accompanied by her cousin Celia, played hilariously and wondrously by Quincy Tyler Bernstine (CSC’s Peer Gynt, Film: Manchester By the Sea), the two are in search of safety in the home of Rosaline’s father Duke Senior. Of course, being that this is Shakespeare, Rosaline decides that she must disguise herself as a young man (convincing), and Celia disguises herself as a poor lady (not so convincing), which naturally leads to a lot of confusion, desire, and love, announcing its instantaneous existence by the dinging of a musical triangle.  I must admit, that if I had  to escape into the woods, I definitely would want Bernstine’s Celia coming along with me.  Although easily exhausted, she’s feisty and fun to be around, and such a pleasure to watch, sometimes stealing the attention away from the main action, but that face and that voice is just impossible to ignore.

Kyle Scatliffe, Hannah Cabell

Kyle Scatliffe, Hannah Cabell Photo by Lenny Stucker

As instantaneous love abounds in As You Like It, the triangle is struck when Orlando, played with effervescent energy and optimism by Kyle Scatliffe (Broadway’s recent revival of The Color Purple) first glances in the eyes of Rosalind.  But Orlando is also forced to flee into the exact same woods after being persecuted by his twisted and vile older brother, Oliver, played by the handsome and well-spoken Noah Brody (Fiasco Theater & Roundabout’s 2015 revival of Into the Woods). Naturally they ‘meet cute’, but since Rosaline is disguised as a man, Orlando doesn’t recognize his true love, and frivolity ensues. Most delightfully in the reactions of pink sunglass-wearing Celia.

Ellen Burstyn

Ellen Burstyn. Photo by Lenny Stucker

But what happened to the magnificent Burstyn, you may ask.  She sat ever so quietly intensely watching the banishment with a serious look in her eye, dressed in shirt, tie, vest, and pants, looking ever so dapper (some lovely and charming costumes by Ann Hould-Ward), but she didn’t say a word. Once all are in the forest, we encounter, along side the piano playing Duke Senior, the melancholy traveller Jaques, in the persona of Burstyn. Finally she speaks. And when she does, she elegantly expresses some of the more famous Shakespearian speeches known to all, such as “All the world’s a stage” and “too much of a good thing”. Jaques is meant to provide us with a sharp contrast to all the lovers on the stage, observing and lamenting the hardships of life. It’s a lovely performance, quiet and simple, but doesn’t seem to be integrated.  She only leaves us wanting more from this wonderful presence, but maybe in another different play, not this one.

All the ingredients are here for a delightful skip and swing through the woods into love and marriage, but strangely it just doesn’t really grab hold.  Even with the wonderfully fun characterizations from André De Shields (Broadway’s The Wiz) as the fool, Touchstone, Cass Morgan (Encore’s Big River) playing the crazy Old Anna and sweet Audrey, Leenya Rideout (Broadway’s Company) as flirty and fickle Phoebe, and David Samuel (Arena Stage’s Ruined) as simple and strong Charles and Silvius, the language doesn’t feel wondrous enough.  It might be that the editing down of this play to a one act adaptation just doesn’t do the story or the characters justice, leaving it jumbled and confusing. Sadly, my ears tell me a different story.  The melodic and poetry of Shakespeare’s As You Like It isn’t there, and what is there is not to my liking.  It stumbles in the woods, and no amount of colorful globes of light, rainbow umbrellas, or jaunty tunes will save the story from falling on it’s face.

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Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children’s theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond.

Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I’ve seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I’d always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible!

As it seems you all love a good list, here’s two.

FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order):

Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date.
Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008
Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last…so far),
Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009
FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different):

Angels in American, both on Broadway and off
Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987
Who’s Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012
Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986
And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list.
These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn’t or couldn’t remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading.

And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy.

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